Ozempic, originally a drug to treat diabetes, is in high demand around the world with celebrities and social media users touting it as a weight loss wonder drug, despite some concerns from medical experts. Now the frenzy is sweeping China, where being skinny is a prevalent beauty standard, leading to shortages in the country.
Chinese social media apps, such as Douyin and Xiaohongshu, have been flooded with posts from users boasting that they have easily lost 10 or more pounds in a month with just a few injections of Ozempic, which is the brand name for semaglutide.
This is a wonder drug, according to a popular series of posts on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social app similar to Instagram. No diet, no exercise, you can lose weight even when lying down.
Ozempic was officially approved in China in April 2021 for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. But users can get it from doctors for other uses or buy it on e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and JD.com (JD) with prescriptions of other people.
Medical experts say that the drug can have serious side effects. Studies and patient reports show that many patients see their weight rebound soon after stopping the injections.
But its growing popularity in China means many hospitals and pharmacies have run out of Ozempic since late last year, according to the state-owned Peoples Daily Health.
This has caused problems for patients with diabetes who depend on the drug.
A doctor at Sun Yat-sen University’s First Affiliated Hospital in the megacity of Guangzhou told official media last month that the hospital briefly ran out of Ozempic due to increased demand from patients trying to lose weight. The hospital has since stopped prescribing it to people who don’t have diabetes.
The hype on social media was so huge that Xiaohongshu launched a crackdown in February and deleted more than 5,000 posts sharing weight loss experiences with Ozempic.
The social media platform accused many posts of exaggerating the effectiveness of the drugs as a weight loss aid and warned its users not to blindly believe such content.
The platform also launched a pop-up alert reminding users searching for the drug online to go to official medical facilities for treatment.
But that wasn’t enough to calm the frenzy. People in China, especially women, have long been pressured to conform to beauty standards that emphasize an extremely slim figure.
As demand has increased, online prices have soared. The official cost of a 1.5mg dose of Ozempic is 478 yuan ($67) in public hospitals, according to China’s National Drug Reimbursement List.
But prices for the same drug currently range from 36% to 151% higher on online shopping site Taobao.
According to its manufacturer, Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk (NONOF), Ozempic had sales of DKK 303 million ($44 million) in China in the nine months following its launch in April 2021.
The following year, sales in the country increased more than sevenfold to DKK 2.2 billion ($316 million).
The weight loss drug market in China is expected to grow in the coming years.
A late 2020 government report said that more than 50 percent of adults in China were overweight, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 24.0.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/FILE
Travelers wait for trains on January 15, 2023 in Shanghai. The Chinese government says more than half of adults in the country are overweight.
Total sales of GLP-1 drugs, a class of diabetes drugs that includes semaglutide, could peak at 40 billion yuan ($5.6 billion) in China, according to an estimate by Shanghai-based Tebon Securities last October. He did not provide a timeline.
This would represent an increase of over 600% over the current market size.
Both Western and Chinese drugmakers want a share of the growing market.
Novo Nordisk has applied to the Chinese drug regulator to expand the scope of use of semaglutide, according to the National Medical Products Administration. Its website showed the regulator received the application on Saturday.
State media speculated that the application would be for weight loss. The drugmaker did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
Several Chinese companies have accelerated the development of generic versions of semaglutide.
Novo Nordisks’ patents for semaglutide in China are expected to expire in 2026, which is the first time that generics could be available for sale.
But this is disputed.
In June 2021, Huadong Medicine, a pharmaceutical company based in Hangzhou, applied to the China State Intellectual Property Office to invalidate the patent. In September 2022, the bureau declared all so-called basic patents for Ozempic invalid in China.
Novo Nordisk appealed the decision. A legal battle is currently underway in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. If the decision is upheld by the court, a number of generic versions of semaglutide from domestic manufacturers could enter the market.
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